September 3, 2004

BLUE ISLAND, Ill. (Sept. 3)—CSX freight trains are moving faster now, and so is vehicular traffic in Chicago’s south suburbs, following installation of a mile of new track and a high-speed interlocking where trains of three railroads have been blocking one another for decades.

The site of the new improvements, for which CSX Corp. paid $22 million, is Blue Island Junction, shared by CSX, the Indiana Harbor Belt Railroad, and the former Grand Trunk main line now owned by Canadian National/Illinois Central.

But the number of carriers barely suggests the level of congestion at the crossing, which actually represents the convergence of eight different railroad routes.

“Blue Island is an incredibly complex crossing and interlocking that’s been causing problems for the railroads and the public for many years,” said UTU Illinois Legislative Director Joseph C. Szabo.

“I became intimately familiar with the controversy between the city and the railroads when I served as mayor of Riverdale, which is just east of Blue Island,” Szabo said. “The Junction has been a continual quality-of-life issue for residents, a public-safety issue for all of the local police and fire departments, and a big service issue for all three railroads.”

Although three carriers cross at Blue Island, the bulk of the problems seemed to occur on CSX, which often had to hold trains at Blue Island until a track opened up at its nearby Barr Yard.

“When CSX trains stopped, its three major street crossings in Blue Island would be blocked,” Szabo said. “But the problem would multiply itself when the CSX train would get permission to enter Barr Yard and would slowly cross the Junction just when a train was approaching on one of the intersecting routes. One train on the crossing could back up two or three others until the whole town of Blue Island came to a halt.”

A particular problem was CSX’s antiquated crossovers, which forced trains to limit their speeds to between 10 and 15 mph if they had to change tracks at the Junction.

By the late 1990s the problem had become so serious that several Blue Island restaurants had to close because their patrons could not get across the tracks in time to make their lunch appointments. Emergency vehicles had to detour—sometimes by a matter of several miles—to reach a hospital or the site of a fire.

CSX had a two-point plan to fix the problem: reconfigure its crossovers so that trains could change tracks at higher speeds, and build a mile of third track west of town so trains that had to be held short of Barr Yard would not block those eligible to proceed.

There was just one problem: The space needed for the third track did not belong to CSX. It belonged to the Cook County Forest Preserve District, and County Board President John Stroger did not want to sacrifice precious recreational land—not even the narrow strip needed to expand the CSX right of way.

That’s when CSX asked for Szabo’s help.

“As a railroad man I knew what kinds of infrastructure improvements had to be made to decongest Blue Island Junction,” he said. “As a south-suburban political leader I knew President Stroger and understood the interests he represented. So I talked with the railroad and with President Stroger, and asked him to work with CSX to develop a win-win solution.”

What emerged, Szabo said, was a land swap: Cook County agreed to give CSX a strip of land sufficient to accommodate a third track adjacent to its Kickapoo Woods Forest preserve at the “throat” where the CSX main line enters the west end of Barr Yard. With access to that land, CSX was able to build a mile of third track westward along its right of way to the Broadway Street crossing on the southwest corner of the city.

In return, the railroad gave the County a substantially greater amount of land under a no-longer-used industrial spur it owned adjacent to the County’s nearby Thorn Creek Forest Preserve.

“The spur we gave up came to 20 acres,” said former CSX Government Affairs Officer Brenda Russell. “It had been serving one industrial customer, but the customer was no longer there and service over the track had been abandoned.”

Blue Island Mayor Don Peloquin also took an active role in working with the County and railroad officials to make sure the new track came into service as quickly as possible. Some of the work was disruptive, but it ultimately provided a bonus side-effect for the city: In addition to trains moving faster and tying up crossings less often, the crossings themselves have been rebuilt, resulting in a safer and smoother ride for motorists.

“CSX’s Blue Island track improvements are a win-win-win for all the parties,” Szabo said. “Private motorists and city emergency vehicles are experiencing fewer delays in getting across Blue Island. The Forest Preserve District gained more recreational land than it gave up. And for the railroad, train performance and reliability are improved, which makes rail shipping attractive to more shippers and provides more good railroad jobs.

“Best of all,” Szabo said, “the Blue Island speedup offers us a small taste of the shipping, travel and quality-of-life improvements that railroad customers and local residents will enjoy when the CREATE program of rail infrastructure improvements is completed. All the trains in Chicago will move faster, and so will most of the cars and trucks.”